Airport Workforce Development is Hotter Than Ever

Some time back, I wrote Airports Compete for New Talent about the challenges presented to today’s airport industry by the continuing need to attract, retain and develop airport talent.

Whereas most people think the biggest airport challenge is security or air service (important, of course), what really occupies the minds and conversations of airport executives is meeting this challenge. As Dan Parsons said in the first of his excellent three article series, “At some point, the job (of airport executive) becomes less about technical expertise and more about leading people.”

The question has become, where are those people coming from? Why are they different than what I am used to? And, how do I deal with all this? THOSE are the questions I most hear airport leaders discussing in the bars and restaurants – places where they can feel free to talk about any subject on their minds.

As I wrote back then, this was once an industry in which most talent came through certain pipelines and tended to stay through their careers. All of that has been upended. Many of those pipelines exist, certain schools still have good programs, and many people still obtain certain certifications. But the overall picture is uncertain and unsure.

All thinking airport executives (and this is true of leaders in many industries by the way) are spending a great deal of time mulling all of this over and trying to come up with strategies to attract and retain the best talent. The imperative is especially important right now because, until someone comes up with the formula that everyone will copy, it will remain a highly competitive marketplace. This is an area where a smart airport director, or airport human resources manager, CAN build a better mousetrap.

As a side note, when I was President of the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO), and a member of the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) Oversight Committee (AOC), I made many of the same comments at my first AOC meeting. That ACRP was not focusing enough attention on some of the issues most important to airport executives, especially workforce development and human resources. ACRP is now in the midst of a multi-level project to develop guidebooks on these issues for airport managers. So, it is catching on in an industry that has in the past often been wedded to old ways of doing things.

So Many Great Minds at Work

Because of the importance of all this, I was asked to expand upon my earlier piece. That piece was written from a 40,000 foot level (I have never run an airport, but as President of Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA)for eight years I have been privy to the thinking of some of the best airport executives around the world).

My original intent was to call attention to the issue, so it gets the attention it deserves – and New Airport Insider is to be commended for the space and attention being given to this issue. To be frank, another lengthy piece would not only push the envelope of my expertise, but would demolish it. So, what I have done is seek the views of some folks who are true experts and practitioners in this field. What I plan to do, then, is to share with you some of their thoughts on the issues I raised. Their contributions, taken together with Dan Parsons’ people series, can form the basis for a continuing focus on this important issue in the digital pages of New Airport Insider going forward.

The practitioners are Lisa Taylor, Deloitte Consulting; Kurt Gering, San Diego International Airport; and Rosa Beckett, Jacksonville (Florida) Aviation Authority. Kurt and Rosa are also vice chairs of the ACI-NA Human Resources Committee. While I sought their input largely through electronic means, I have also had the opportunity to discuss these issues in person with all three. They are among the best in the business.

While much of this post is U.S. focused, I can say with confidence that much of it would apply anywhere in the world. Indeed, I could even argue that these observations are even more apt outside the U.S. as the ownership and business paradigm for airports has undergone an even greater upheaval globally than in America.

The Career Path Will Never be the Same

One of the points I made in my first article, and which really lies at the base of anxiety for so many airport managers, is that the career path, from entry to retirement, was so often well defined in years and decades past. And now, that is no longer the case. You don’t necessarily need to have gone to a certain school, or gotten a certain certification. If you are working at an airport now, you are not likely counting on staying there throughout the 40+ years of your working life. How to adjust to this new reality has been a challenge for airports.

Lisa Taylor points out the preference of Gen X and millennials to change jobs frequently, and that this is also an issue that governments have faced (in many places airports are either part of a governmental body, or seen that way) in trying to attract and keep younger people. A failure to do so can leave a skills gap and a succession problem.

Kurt Gering notes that his organization has noticed this problem and begun to re-work job descriptions that are seen as cumbersome and overly narrow, and therefore not terribly likely to attract today’s young talent. Capabilities are more likely to be the focus of those job descriptions, rather than a more traditional set of criteria based on years of experience.

As a way of recognizing that tenures are getting shorter (or at the very least, the amount of time an employee stays before beginning to think about what’s next becomes shorter), Rosa Beckett says that her airport has begun to look at perks or benefits that might be more interesting to younger employees such as more portable and flexible retirement plan options. Younger people are much more likely than previous generations to want much more control of their financial destiny, which makes sense as we have moved away from defined benefit type retirement plans that many older workers depend on, and toward a defined contribution arrangement.

All of these are things that are happening in other industries as well, as most readers will note. Most of those industries have not traditionally been as highly regulated and hidebound as have airports, so the process is slower. But it is starting to happen, and will be well worth following.

When Good News Equals Challenge

In a section called “Good News is Bad News” my October, 2015 article pointed out that airports are no longer simply facilities, but are much more dynamic places requiring business, high tech, social and other skills not traditionally seen as those required to work at airports. The good news is that this change has worked to the benefit of traveler, shippers and communities around the world that are so much better connected by the modern global aviation system. But the bad news is that airports can no longer rely simply on the traditional talent pipelines. So, what does this mean?

There is a temptation to view this simplistically. Let’s get more MBA’s, or more people who worked at Google or some such place. But it is more than this. As Gering points out, this goes further than just finding more MBAs or some other specific credential. There is a need to find people who can manage through ambiguity, creativity and innovation; either by having them perform a series of different roles at an airport, or a variety of airports, or in a series of different industries. The traditional airport personnel structure, built around areas of specific expertise, is no longer adequate, or even terribly relevant in many cases. While operational experts will always be required, anyone expected to show leadership will need a more flexible set of skills. In Taylor’s words, soft skills development is much more important now. The traditional, “I’m your boss so you will do as I say” way of doing things no longer works; and will undercut efforts to attract good young talent. The socially connected world millennials grew up in is less interested in hierarchy and more accustomed to real-time, continuous feedback.

Retention  Challenges Abound

The big question I asked in that same article, and that airport leaders are asking all over the world is: “How do we retain these people?”

Taylor pointed out to me that I really did not answer the question in my original article, which is absolutely true. Airports, and their representative organizations such as Airports Council International (ACI World and the five regional ACI’s), are working hard on this and sharing best practices.  Some of the best attended sessions at ACI conferences deal with human resources and talent acquisition issues.

Gering focuses on the need to provide purpose-driven work; you need to establish a connection and, most importantly, a passion in the workforce for what it is the airport and the community are trying to accomplish. Taylor also points out the importance of workplace culture, which is really an offshoot of today’s young worker not being satisfied with a “because I said so” form of leadership. If the culture results in engaged employees, you are more likely to retain the best of them.

Beckett focuses on many practical aspects of this challenge. Job sharing, multi-industry collaboration and learning opportunities are good practices that previous generations of airport leaders did not need to focus on. A real strength of the airport industry is the willingness of its leaders to share best practices with one another. They may often compete for air service and for talent, but they are much more willing than most industries, in my experience, to share best practices and good ideas. This is an overall airport industry strength, and full advantage must be taken.

Do We Really Understand Young People?

In the October, 2015 article when I wrote about “All Those Young People,” I characterized the new generation as “impatient and fast-paced.” I may have been guilty of over-generalization, as Gering suggested. His focus, is more on their desire for purpose and meaning in their work. They don’t just want to check a box. And their lifelong access to technology gives them immediate information that means they are less likely to want to wait for word from up a hierarchical ladder. A lot of these things do challenge traditional notions of structure and control.

Beckett expands on this and talks about the need for the airport to be much more flexible and fluid. Millennials require much more work/life integration, giving them more control over when and how work gets done. Again, airports have existed, in many cases, in a highly structured, traditional environment (and a certain amount of this is required given the fact that planes take off and land on a schedule). But to attract and retain young, highly skilled, workers, accommodations must be made.

Taylor talks about the need to do a better job reaching out to younger workers to ensure they know about jobs and opportunities. A lot of young people (and a lot of people in society in general) have a very poor understanding of exactly what happens at an airport, and all the skills that are required to keep it running. So, in essence, there is a PR problem. One of her suggestions is to reach into high schools to start recruiting there, offering internships and experiences. As I continue to look at this issue I will keep this in mind. Doing this can also help airports with the overall PR challenges they face in educating a public poorly informed about airport roles and responsibilities. She also talks about the mis-perceptions many in older generations have about today’s younger workers, and vice versa.  This is a two-way PR challenge.

Future is Bright

I ended the October, 2015 article with a short section entitled ‘The Future is Bright.” Nothing I have learned in the meantime, or from my colleagues, takes away from this conclusion. There is work to do, but the good news is that today’s airport leader – even if they struggle with answers – at least understands the challenge. The airport industry has shown a remarkable ability over the years to replace strong senior leadership. The same resilience can help the industry meet these challenges as well. And when you have people like Lisa Taylor, Kurt Gering, Rosa Beckett and the folks at ACRP and ACI thinking about these things and actively looking for solutions, there is no reason to be pessimistic.

As I said earlier, a big advantage the airport industry has is its willingness and ability to share good ideas and learn from others; even from outside the industry. Never will that strength be more tested than it will be as the airport industry addresses the future of its workforce. I am excited that so many good minds are at work on this, and that New Airport Insider is committed to staying with this issue and providing this platform.

Please share your thoughts. I look forward to reading them.

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Finding Hidden LeadersHow To Manage Generational Differences In The WorkplaceHow Do Generations Of Workers Differ?Identifying and Evaluating Airport Workforce Requirements, 2016, ACRP